Over the last two and a half years, the once-vast space between Donald Trump’s authoritarian vision of the presidency and the effective powers at his disposal has slowly collapsed. Trump used to wistfully pine for an Attorney General who would protect the president’s personal interests and even cover up his actual crimes, and now he has William Barr. He used to call for American foreign policy as a weapon of plunder, and now he tells the country he has done exactly that.
After telling an audience of police chiefs that the United States would not be a “policeman in this case of two countries that haven’t gotten along for centuries,” but we’re keeping the oil. “I’ve always said that. Keep the oil. $45 million dollars a month.”
As a candidate, Trump used to routinely riff on his desire to use American military to steal resources from smaller countries. “I would take the oil,” he would insist about the Iraq War. “In the old days, you know, when you had a war, to the victor belong the spoils. You go in. You win the war and you take it,” he would say.
This course of action is indisputably an international war crime, and probably a violation of American law as well. The entire basis for American alliances is the notion that the U.S. acts as a liberal superpower safeguarding global security within the framework of international law. There may be some dispute as to the proper boundaries of this authority — the Iraq War is a case where the U.S. stretched its authority to enforce the truce terms of the first Gulf War beyond the point that most U.S. allies could accept — but it was undertaken in the name of enforcing a U.N. weapons of destruction agreement. Sending troops in order to seize foreign resources is literally the policy method of Genghis Khan and Hitler.
In recent days, Trump has hinted at the idea without quite stating it openly. “We’ve secured the oil, and, therefore, a small number of U.S. troops will remain in the area where they have the oil,” he said last week. “And we’re going to be protecting it, and we’ll be deciding what we’re going to do with it in the future.” Now the language of “securing” the oil has given way to “keeping the oil.”
On Sunday he said, “What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly … and spread out the wealth,” thereby implicating a specific firm in his planned war crimes, a decision that probably did not thrill Exxon’s branding team. (Exxon: Your partners in criminal war profiteering.) Trump even added the oddly specific price tag, $45 million a month, in case future war-crimes prosecutors at the Hague need to flesh out their indictment.
In all probability, Trump’s scheme of stealing Syrian oil for fun and profit is likely to remain a fantasy. Reporting indicates that generals and war hawks have played upon the president’s childlike fascination with using the military as an instrument of foreign plunder to manipulate him into keeping American troops in the region — Trump is unmoved either by humanitarian or strategic rationales, but if you’re promising the opportunity for theft and raw domination, he’ll listen. On the other hand, he did manage to distort American policy toward Ukraine for the patently improper purpose of smearing his domestic rivals. Trump seems to be getting better at recruiting accomplices for his crimes.
The best possible and most likely explanation for these facts is that Trump is an aspiring war criminal who has possibly been deluded by his staff into thinking he has ordered massive violations of the Geneva Convention. It seems a little too complacent, though, to assume that it means nothing at all that the president is telling the world he has undertaken a campaign of looting.